Column: Sexism in laid-back Sonoma, where a ‘slut-shamed’ candidate got the last laugh
Our national politics are awash in sexism.
The president called a woman he is alleged to have slept with “horseface.”
A man who belittled a female U.S. senator after being credibly accused of sexual assault was confirmed to the Supreme Court.
Is it any wonder that the sexist bile swamping the upper reaches of American politics has trickled all the way down to the local level?
And yet, if the bucolic wine country town of Sonoma is any example, there is hope. Women are not taking it anymore.
Exhibit A is Rachel Hundley, 35, a Sonoma city councilwoman who is seeking reelection. She is the victim of a political attack that was so misogynistic and mendacious that it has made her something of a political celebrity.
Hundley, a municipal policy attorney and onetime food truck entrepreneur, was a political neophyte in 2014 when she ran for City Council here. She’d been in Sonoma for only two years, having left the East Coast after she was let go from her corporate law job. She wanted to live in a community with a sense of itself, and wanted to get involved.
She was fully prepared to lose her first campaign, but to her surprise, edged out an incumbent. When she took office, she became the first millennial member of the Sonoma City Council. In 2016, the council chose her as mayor, a largely ceremonial year-long position that comes with a few unique powers, which she put to use.
She spearheaded a shakeup of the Planning Commission, which rattled the local establishment at a time when Sonoma is in a protracted struggle over how to balance its identity as a charming wine country town with intense development pressures and soaring housing costs. She said she felt the commission was too passive. Traditionally, commissioners had been automatically reappointed, she said, and she wanted to have fresh voices on the panel.
“That was the first time I was called a carpetbagger, the first time I was called ‘arrogant,’” she told me Sunday, sipping a mimosa as we sat on the cozy back deck of her rental home in a rural neighborhood dotted with oaks and grapevines on the east side of town.
She didn’t invite me inside, as she had just gotten married a week earlier, and the house was in post-wedding disarray. Her husband, Sean Hamlin, is also in politics; he is campaign manager for Democratic state Assemblyman Jim Wood. When I asked if I could plug my dying phone in, she said, “Of course. We have a cord right here. We’re millennials.”
Later, we drove over to City Hall, a stately stone building in the middle of the town’s famous plaza, to meet a photographer. As soon as she arrived, a woman approached. “Hi, Mayor!” she said. “I want you to meet my daughter.”
“Who was that?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Hundley replied sheepishly. “I’m terrible with names and faces.”
With the sun in her eyes, she sat gamely for photos in the “O” of a big red metal sculpture in front of City Hall that spells “LOVE.”
As mayor, she quickly learned that exercising even her limited power came at a cost.
Though appointing new planning commissioners was well within her rights as mayor, she said, “I had no idea what I was stepping into with that one. That’s what opened the gates of fury.”
And here’s what came out: In the middle of August, Hundley got an email from a group called “Sonoma Citizens for Peace & Cooperation.” The email, which told her to drop out of her race, had a link to a website called “Exposing Rachel Hundley.”
The website, with images lifted from her social media posts, was vicious if sophomoric.
There she was in her not-very-revealing underwear, posing for wholesome, fitness-style shots from 2013, the year she turned 30.
“I gave myself the gift of having a personal trainer for six months,” she said. “At the end of that, I was as buff as this body can get. And I figured one day when I was 70 or 80, it would be a memory of what I was at 30.”
There were a couple of photos from Burning Man, including one where she is wearing a bustier and bikini bottoms. Also, a sweet shot of her hugging the hood of her late and lamented food truck, Drums and Crumbs, which is painted in a pink-and-white gingham pattern, with frills.
Not exactly Stormy Daniels material here.
In the text, she was vilified as a devious lawyer with “an unbridled desire to dominate Sonoma into submission” and a “cruel and demented person who lacks a moral compass.”
She was accused of resenting Sonoma for “rejecting her failed fried chicken truck.”
She was accused of inflicting “fatal damage” on the planning commission in a “Heil Rachel blitzkrieg.” Her behavior was alleged to be “lascivious, drunk and drug-addled.”
“I had this nauseated feeling that didn’t disappear for a month,” Hundley said. “Something like that had never happened in Sonoma.”
Friends counseled her to ignore it.
Hundley decided to fight back. She created a four-minute video, and posted it to YouTube.
She is standing on Sonoma Plaza wearing a prim blue dress. She seems a little nervous, but resolute.
The video is, in its own restrained way, a tour de force. It is a millennial woman’s unflinching declaration of independence — from sexual shame, from patriarchy, from fear.
“What was especially disturbing in this era of #MeToo was the attempt to slut-shame me for celebrating my body and my attendance at Burning Man,” Hundley says in the video. She skipped the festival this year. “I have voluntarily managed a well-known wine bar that is associated with a consent-focused, sex-positive theme camp.”
I’m not exactly sure what that means, but I’m a big fan of using “consent” and “sex” in the same sentence.
“For too long it has been seen as OK to control women by dictating what is acceptable for us to wear, say and do,” Hundley says. “Strong women have been fighting these double standards and hypocrisy for years, fighting a culture that says our bodies and our lives are meant only for the consumption of men. …I am here today to tell my faceless bullies that I cannot be shamed into quitting because I am not ashamed.”
Since it was posted on Aug. 20, the video has been watched nearly 187,000 times.
That’s 17 times more than the population of Sonoma, and 26 times more than the city’s 7,000 registered voters.
And the attack website?
It was taken down almost immediately. No one took credit for putting it up, and given the support and attention Hundley has received in the aftermath, I doubt anyone ever will.